A few days before the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities, for his support of the reform of blasphemy laws, banners in Karachi demanded the death of an author, Tehmina Durrani.
The targeting of Durrani was overshadowed by the murder of Bhatti, which followed the assassination of Salman Taseer, prominent politician and unabashed critic of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. But the choice of Durrani as victim of the week, by the Tehreek-Tahafuz-e-Tableegh-e-Islam, was peculiarly revealing.
Durrani’s last published work, Blasphemy, came out in 1998 and was widely read in Pakistan. Written in the tone of a particularly high-pitched jatra, Blasphemy was a melodramatic indictment of corrupt Muslim pirs and mullahs, with special reference to their predatory ways with women. It was controversial, in the Pakistan of 1998, but it was also a bestseller, and was easy to find in the bookstores of Lahore and Karachi.
Bhatti and Taseer were victims of the current debates in Pakistan around the blasphemy laws, and of the rising tide of intolerance as religious hardliners attempt to silence the voice of a beleagured majority. But Bhatti and Taseer were not blasphemers, even under Pakistan’s increasingly misused, opaque blasphemy laws. They were not assassinated because of any criticism they had made of religion in general or Islam and the Prophet in particular; they were assassinated because they were in favour of reforming the blasphemy laws. Unless you argue that speaking out against blasphemy laws is in itself blasphemy, Bhatti and Taseer were, even by the standards of those who uphold the blasphemy laws, innocent.
Durrani’s novel is an apparently obvious target — for all of Blasphemy’s high drama, she is bluntly and fiercely critical of a certain section of the clergy, and she pulls few punches in her critique of some Islamic laws and the ways in which they have been used against religion. At the time at which she wrot e Blasphemy, it was still possible to criticise one’s faith if you lived in and wrote about Pakistan, and it was still possible, ten years after Satanic Verses, to debate and question the workings of religion.
Why would any band of clerics zero in on a book that is now over 13 years old, hasn’t been the subject of discussion or general interest for the past five years at least, where the author has published nothing at all in recent years? In India, we had an example of this fairly recently, when the Thackerays launched a misguided attack on Rohinton Mistry’s 1991 novel, Such a Long Journey. The ostensible reason for the attack was the young Aditya Thackeray’s concern that the book was “highly abusive and objectionable” to Marathi-speakers; the real trigger was his discovery that his politician grandfather Bal Thackeray had been roundly criticised in a book considered one of Indian literature’s modern classics.
In the case of Such a Long Journey, the attack on the book and its subsequent, and craven, withdrawal from the Mumbai University syllabus was a transparent attempt to whitewash history, and erase those parts that might be critical of a certain political family. In the case of the recent demand for Durrani’s death, the aim is far more lethal — by picking on a 13-year-old book, the Tehreek-Tahafuz-e-Tableegh-e-Islam is laying claim to be seen as a protector of the faith from any kind of criticism. In effect, the message sent out by the recent assassinations and this puzzling, apparently random, death threat is that no criticism of religion, clergy, or faith will be brooked in today’s Pakistan.
For readers and writers in the subcontinent, what is significant is not just the manner in which the blasphemy laws have been applied in Pakistan, but the slow and definite erosion of the right to question faith. One of the major reasons why writers and artists of all stamps, anywhere in the world, oppose the legislation of the right to take offence is because it has what’s called a chilling effect on healthy debate. India has often been complacent about its own laws in the past, pointing to the willingness of the courts to rule against censorship; but we have been markedly nervous about protecting the right of authors (or the general citizen) to question, criticise and satirise religion.
In just a little over a decade, and more precisely in just the last few years, Pakistanis have almost lost the right to speak openly about matters concerning faith. The authors Kamila Shamsie and Mohammed Hanif have strongly criticised the blasphemy laws in the last week, but their voices have to battle not arguments and not reasoned debate, but death threats and cold-blooded murder. If a state takes no steps to protect its citizens’ right to free speech and debate, even in the face of opposition from religious fanatics, the way of the gun will prevail.